'Piece of history': 1930s ladder truck returns to Conn. city

The city's first fire truck, a circa-1930 American LaFrance, has come full circle after its journey to as far away as New York — nine decades after the fire department put it to use

Cassandra Day
The Middletown Press, Conn.

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — The city's first firetruck, a circa-1930 American LaFrance, has come full circle after its journey to as far away as New York — nine decades after the Fire Department put it to use.

The cherry-red ladder apparatus was unveiled Thursday afternoon at the R.M. Keating Historical Enterprise Park on Johnson Street, where it's being temporarily stored.

"It's a little rusty," Mayor Ben Florsheim said Friday afternoon, "but the engine started. Everything that is supposed to move moves."

Securing the vehicle and returning it to its city of origin was made possible by the efforts of many current and veteran fire personnel, as well as countless others.

Middletown had the truck in service until the late 1950s, according to the city. It then was loaned to the Connecticut Valley Hospital fire department, the mayor said. When the facility received its own ladder truck, Middletown gave it to Ernest I. Swartz, owner of EIS Brake Parts, formerly located on North Main Street.

Swartz put the truck in his antique museum in Philadelphia, Pa., where it remained until it was bought by retired Capt. William Broderick of the Binghamton, N.Y., Fire Department, the city said in a press release.

"It felt like kismet" having the opportunity "arise out of the blue," Florsheim said.

The process of restoration is expected to take a couple of years, he said.

Once on display — either in the Keating building or another location — the ladder truck will complement the historic Middletown pumper in the lobby of City Hall. The circa-1803 pumper, long housed in the lobby of Middlesex Mutual Assurance Co. on Court Street, was given to the local fire department in 2018.

"You can trace the history of the fire service from the first pumper to this, to something many times more technologically advanced than that," Florsheim said.

None of the costs will be borne by taxpayers, he added. Firefighters raised all the funds necessary to allow the former owner to recoup his outlay for the remaining storage costs, which was a couple thousand dollars.

"It was basically a donation," Florsheim aid.

"People were really excited and moved to see it" at the unveiling, the mayor said. The most emotional part for Florsheim was watching former firefighter John Cyrulik, who turned 102 in December, on the truck, inspecting it thoroughly, he said.

Cyrulik served with the department for 29 years. He was celebrated by his family, friends and city officials on both the occasions of his 100th and 101st birthdays.

"I was very excited to see him be able to see it again. A lot of firefighters — second- and third-generation — were so committed to turning it into a family project and legend. A lot of people there saw the generations that had come before in that apparatus," the mayor said.

The ladder truck has what appears to be a seat at the back with a steering wheel, Florsheim said. "It was so long, it needed a wheel to be able to steer to go around corners."

The body is "completely open and exposed to the elements," the mayor said.

Someday soon, the mayor hopes to see the truck as part of the city's Memorial Day parade, and perhaps for what became very popular in the height of the pandemic — drive-by birthday visits from fire crews.

"It's such a conversation piece and piece of history," Florsheim said.

It took a labor of love to return the ladder truck. While on duty in early July, firefighter Ryan Scranton received a call from a woman who was in possession of it. She asked whether the department was interested in buying it back, a news release said.

When then-Fire Chief Robert Kronenberger was about to retire, he suggested Scranton contact firefighter Owen Andrews, who tracked down the owner. Retired firefighter Jim Loewenthal got in touch with retired firefighter Gene Olson, who was very knowledgeable about vintage trucks, according to the city.

Robby Gallitto, owner of Gallitto Construction Co. in Middletown, agreed to transport it back. Along with Matt Hubbard, owner of Yankee Heritage Construction Co. in Middletown, they found a mechanic and several truck drivers who offered assistance.

Then, Sign Mart of Middletown donated a two-by-eight-foot sign reading "Going Home to Middletown, CT," which was hung on the side of the truck as the group drove the Tiller truck home Oct. 24.

Committee members will be setting up a nonprofit crowdfunding page to help pay for its restoration and future display.


(c)2021 The Middletown Press, Conn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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